Space X-termination

On 28th February 2017, SpaceX announced that they will take tourists around the moon. CEO Elon Musk proudly revealed this, arguably, foolhardy feat as the next stage of his ambition for deep space colonisation. Their new Falcon Heavy rocket will propel two wealthy Earthling tourists contained in ‘The Dragon’ capsule in a full loop of the moon and back, planned for late 2018.

However, the project is not without its fair bang of controversy. In 2015, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded two minutes after take-off, after engineers on the ground gave the command to self-destruct.  The ethical dilemma is; should such a system be installed on SpaceX’s missions involving human cargo, when its use would result in the passenger’s certain death?

Engineers against moon mission murder


The self destruct function installed on the rocket ensured public safety on the ground, protecting them from an out of control rocket diving towards their homes at several kilometers a second. Additionally, the detonation mitigated significant environmental concerns arising from extremely toxic and corrosive Hypergolic propellants; 1400kg of which are contained in the solid rocket boosters (SRB’s). However, these eventualities are worst case scenarios. Should self destruction not be executed, chances of passenger survival increase infinitely, but the likelihood of other dangers marginally increases.

It is easily argued that the ordered self-destruction of a spacecraft with human cargo is murder. The actions of the engineer results directly in the death of the passengers, and the outcome is known before the button is pressed, i.e., murder. Even if a passenger were to perform the self destruct procedure, it would result in more than their own death. This is akin to a suicide pact, for which the charge of manslaughter can be brought against the passenger who pressed the button.

Therefore the issue of installing a self destruction is beyond the reach of ethical dilemmas, it’s use results in a crime, and therefore wrong by definition. The engineers installing the button could be considered an accessory to murder and also charged.

If it isn’t satisfactory enough to identify the potential crimes involved, Kant’s deontological moral theory supports the exclusion of a self-destruct system on the SpaceX rocket. The end, according to Kant, does not justify the means. If the self-destruct button was pressed, Kant’s theory says we could be following the rule ‘it is permissible to kill’, which will never be acquiescent. Consequently, the potential benefit of saving lives on the ground is not justified by the killing of two humans.

Pollock’s Freedom Principle ethical framework prohibits self-destruct systems. Pollock decrees that everyone is free to act, as long as that act does not deny or hinder the pleasure of others. It is not difficult to see that the act of deliberately exploding the rocket will negatively impact the pleasure of the space tourism passengers. Firstly, the Moon circumnavigation service that they paid for will no longer be available for them to enjoy. Secondly, their certain death means that whatever gratifying self-indulgence they had coming to them for the remainder of their life would be snuffed out by the aerial ordnance activator.

Undeniable conclusions can be drawn from the compelling criminal and ethical evidence, from historically esteemed philosophers, that to install a self-destruct system would be manifestly wrong.

The other 98%


The individuals who have signed up for Space X’s first manned trip to the moon have paid an enormous amount of money for the privilege – Space X have declined to disclose exact figures, but considering it costs NASA $80 million per astronaut to get to the International Space Station (much closer than the moon), speculation has put the ticket cost to be in the region of $175 million.

This is a purely a self-indulgent venture and as such can be likened to any extreme sport. In these circumstances, the individual must accept the unavoidable risks, which come with their actions. This statement becomes ever more prudent when considering the safety of third parties. By not installing a self-destruct sequence in the hope of saving those on board, you are essentially pushing risk onto the surrounding community without their knowledge or consent. This course of action strongly opposes any ideals of moral responsibility, where one must be willing to accept the repercussions of one’s actions. From this ethical standpoint, it is simply unacceptable to not integrate the self-destruct sequence into this program.

With this discussion in mind, it is clear that this issue should be attacked from a utilitarian point of view – in that the decision on whether to have a self-destruct function should be made to ensure the greatest amount of good is shared by the greatest number of people. From here, it is a simple matter of numbers. More people are at risk from immediate death as well as longer-term health impacts from a falling rocket and its toxic fuel than the two passengers in the rocket. In order to prevent this and execute a break-up that preserves the livelihoods of those on the ground, the self-destruct function needs to be installed.

Humanity has been pandering to the richest and most powerful for centuries, leaving us in a position where 8 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the global population. Continuing down this route of prioritising the lives of a few at the expense of the many has the potential for catastrophic ramifications for the planet and its inhabitants. The lack of a self-destruct function on a Space X tourist vehicle allows the richest in the world the opportunity to cause yet further societal, economic and environmental damage. This sends the wrong message in the early stages of the 21st century, where efforts need to be steered towards allowing every citizen on Earth a quality of life that has deemed acceptable in the economically developed world for decades.

Group 19: Terry Keys, Ipsum Lorem, Maria Henow, Francesca Regatti



16 thoughts on “Space X-termination

  1. Why don’t the rocket engineers develop an escape mechanism to allow the passengers to eject themselves before the self destruct mechanism is activated ?


  2. That may well be the course of action decided on, but at this stage the only process known to achieve the main aim of limiting the damage done back on Earth after a malfunction is the self-destruct function discussed.
    Much of Space X’s work is highly confidential so it is only possible to draw conclusions from known information.


  3. Interesting article! The issue draws parallels to another of Musk’s ventures with Tesla. Should automated cars protect passengers of its vehicles over and above pedestrians and/or how will it ‘rank’ the importance of living?


  4. The utilitarian behaves sensibly in all that is required for preservation but never takes account of the fact that he must die… His whole life is absorbed in avoiding death, which is inevitable, and therefore he might be thought to be the most irrational of men, if rationality has anything to do with understanding ends of comprehending the human situation as such. He gives way without reserve to his most powerful passion and the wishes it engenders.


  5. Great article, but crazy to debate. If a person is fully informed when they decide to do something dangerous then that decision is their own and that moral responsibility ends with them. If a person is not informed that ‘self destruct’ is a possibility then that very much could be considered as ‘murder’… But, assuming they have been, anybody else who hasn’t chosen to participate in such a venture should not be put in even the slightest amount of danger.


    1. Hi Harvey, thank you for your comments. I’ve touched on this issue in a response later in this blog, to a comment made by Amelia. There are complex legal issues surrounding submission of a self-destruct order, even with the approval of the passengers before hand. Murder may well be hard to prove in this instance, but killing with prior approval from the deceased isn’t legal (just look at assisted suicide). I think it’s possible to argue with the moral responsibility ending with the passenger, but does the law protect the engineer who orders the self-destruct? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  6. Some people would rather try and fail to go to space than never try. Maybe they will be self destructed but perhaps that is for the best as they have lived a happy and fulfilled life.

    Interesting point from JACKHAWKINS0, though, regardless of the passengers’ choice about understanding their risks, the very nature of sanctioning human death in any context (as punishment, sympathy, protection or even damage limitation) is a can of worms that not most, if any, people will agree on. Many will say; if people are in there, they need saving!

    Personally I think we should always nurture human endeavour; embracing and debating it’s ugly sides, never limiting progress with yes/no, black/white rhetoric.

    Great article, thanks!


  7. as a former service man, i can say that this is no differnt from any choice i were given. kill or be killed. if the rocket will destroy a town whats the problem?


  8. Passenger should know that they are likely to be killed before deciding to go into the rocket. Everything involves risks. Air crashes occur every year. But it is the fastest and reliable transportation vehicle at the moment. As you have said, self-destruct button reduce the death on the ground. Or the engineers can investigate other means to allow the passengers to escape before the rocket explodes. I am confused about this sentence:The lack of a self-destruct function on a Space X tourist vehicle allows the richest in the world the opportunity to cause yet further societal, economic and environmental damage.

    Why the richest can cause potential damage?


    1. Thanks for your comment Amelia. I think this case has similar issues as assisted suicide, which isn’t legal here in the UK. I don’t think there is any circumstance where you can sign a disclaimer that shows you accept even a risk of death, let alone certainty. I think thats covered under Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 (quick google search result that). Can you see how a accepting that someone may kill you by using the self destruct may contradict this law?


  9. A coy plot to redistribute wealth by blowing up the bourgeoisie?
    The rights of those paid to install the destruct button would need to be protected. A man selling someone a knife isn’t responsible for the actions of the buyer, so should they be held for the deaths of passengers?


  10. Agree with Natasha here – the criminal evidence is weak. It would be difficult to attach criminal responsibility if the self destruct function was to be used as it wouldn’t be just to blame the individuals who pressed the button but then who’s liable? The ethical argument that supports the presence of the function and emphasises individuals’ freedom of choice is an important one but if it’s not the passengers themselves ending their own life is it fair that someone else has to bear the burden? Even if the engineers are happy to do this should we be giving them this power? Where do you draw the line between when it is and isn’t acceptable for people to be in control of another persons life?


    1. Hi Regina, thanks for your comments. Please check my response to an earlier comment by Amelia regarding legal issues surrounding the self-destruct function. It may never be possible to install a self-destruct button legally. Perhaps if it were, a system like this would have been installed on large aircraft to avoid another 9/11 scenario? A grim thought, indeed, but outside of war situations, is it ever legal to kill to avoid potential greater casualties?


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